Bill Gates knows technology, not education

Tom Dunn - Contributing columnist

Since its inception less than a decade ago, I have been on a rant against Ohio’s state-mandated teacher evaluation system, which dictated that as much as half of a teacher’s appraisal was to be tied to student test scores. I have been on my rant because there is not an iota of reliable research that supports this concept, and because I view this law as yet another example of a poorly conceived concept that was enacted based on political and personal agendas instead of sound educational research.

More often than not, when educators like me have complained about foolish political mandates like this one, we are branded by the people who have created them (our politicians) as being whiny little babies who are afraid of being held accountable for our work. I have found that when some of them have nothing of substance to say, speaking derisively of those who dare question them seems to be their fallback position.

It will be interesting to see how the political establishment responds to the 526-page report released recently by the RAND Corporation that agrees with what has been my position all along; that such an evaluation system has failed in its efforts to give all children an equal opportunity to succeed despite spending over a half a billion dollars on the project. They certainly can’t blame this report on whiny educators like me.

Since we haven’t heard much about it in the month since its release, I assume the political PR machine is working overtime to bury the story as deeply as possible so that you and I are unaware that our tax dollars have been so badly wasted (again). But, let’s not let them off the hook that easily.

To be fair, Ohio’s weren’t the only politicians in America who blindly signed on to this concept. Those in other states were just as gullible once billionaire Bill Gates decided to pump over $212 million of his own money into his pet project in 2009 and once President Obama committed federal funds to it via his Race to the Top initiative. Since politicians have no expertise in education, they did what they always do; they played “follow the leader” with no regard to the validity of the concept, especially if the concept was given a cute little name like “Race to the Top” and especially if there was money involved. This qualified on both counts.

In a nutshell, Mr. Gates was convinced that by using student test scores, the most effective teachers in improving student academic achievement could be identified and the less effective ones could be eliminated from the profession; leaving only the best teachers to flock to work with the students who need them most; that being those who live in poverty. Of course, none of that happened.

Students with teachers who were saddled by the cumbersome, bureaucratic evaluation process lawmakers created performed no better than students of teachers who were spared the torture, and it certainly didn’t impact where teachers chose to teach.

While there is nothing wrong with a billionaire wasting money on his hobby, it didn’t end there, of course, once the project took on a political tone, as over $350 million of yours and my federal, state, and local tax dollars helped fund this flawed concept. Yes, the taxpayers of America were once again fleeced on a project that had no hope of success.

While the RAND report does classify this experiment as a failure, it stops short of answering the question of why it didn’t work. Please allow me to take a stab at that one.

Bill Gates made the same mistake that policy-makers have been making for decades in that he confused the notion that a teacher is the most impactful person to a child when he/she is in school as compared to being the most impactful person in a child’s life. There is a big difference.

His teacher evaluation experiment failed because there are many factors more important than the teacher in a child’s life that determines his or her success, so focusing his attention on a false assumption that the teacher is THE determining factor doomed his experiment to fail. It really goes no deeper than that.

The most frustrating aspect of this failure was that it didn’t need to happen, if only Mr. Gates and our leaders would have listened to experts in the field who tried to warn them that using data in this manner was invalid.

But, they didn’t listen, and that is why they failed (again).

Tom Dunn

Contributing columnist

Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.

Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.